Of True and False Apostles

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN IT’S TIME for a strong leader to step down and be replaced by another? Sometimes there is continuity: the successor has similar gifts and a similar vision to his predecessor. Too often the successor is not up to the task: a poor choice to follow the predecessor’s lead.

The Apostle Paul was a driving force in setting the Church at Ephesus firmly on the Rock of Christ. From AD 52 to 54 he lived in the city which became the base for his missionary travels as well during those years. St Paul, however, was not a local pastor but an apostle who traveled the Middle East and Europe preaching the Gospel, establishing or reinforcing local communities, then moving on.

Sometimes St Paul would leave his closest associates to oversee the development of the local Church. It seems that in Ephesus, however, Paul at first formed local leaders – bishops, presbyters (elders) – to be responsible for the local community, aided in their ministry by periodic visits and/or letters (the Epistles) from Paul himself. Only later did he send St Timothy to oversee the Church in this important city.

Chapter 20 of the Acts of the Apostles records how St Paul expressed his concern for the Church at Ephesus even when he could not pay them a personal visit. He called for the presbyters to meet him at the nearby port of Miletus for what we might call a pep talk, particularly as he feared they might not meet again in this life.


The Problem at Ephesus

St Paul warns the Ephesian elders, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among you men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:28-30).

The apostles were not the only preachers exercising an itinerant ministry at the time. Pagan philosophers and religious teachers of all kinds brought their message to the chief cities of the Roman Empire. The new churches set up in the Roman world provided fertile ground for some of these teachers claiming to be bringing the fullness of the Gospel to young believers.

St Paul had done exactly that on his own first visit to Ephesus. “Finding some disciples he said to them ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ So they said to him, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit’” (Acts 19:1-2). Learning that these men had been baptized by followers of St John the Baptist, Paul preached Christ to them and baptized them in Jesus’ name. Paul then spent two years with the Ephesians grounding them in the Gospel.

St Paul feared his work would be undone by other itinerant preachers whom he called “savage wolves” and “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:13), worried that people would not be able to discern their teaching from the true Gospel of Christ: “…if he who comes preached another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received or a different gospel which you have not accepted – you may well put up with it!” (2 Corinthians 11:4).

Christ vs. the Law

One of the “different gospels’ circulating in the first-century Church taught that pagans who became Christians also needed to be circumcised and to observe other laws in the Torah such as its dietary practices. Its proponents claimed that following the Law was required to insure that the believer remained pure and thus be assured a place in the kingdom of heaven.

St Paul’s epistles frequently address this challenge, insisting that what saves us is belief in Christ rather than observance of the Law. “We have been delivered from the Law,” he would write to the Romans, “having died to what we were held by so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter” (Romans 7:6). A Christian who continued to observe the Law, he came to believe, was actually denying Christ. “You have become estranged from Christ – you who attempt to be justified by the Law. You have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

Proponents of Old Testament practices in the Church came to be known as Judaizers, and groups of them continued for many years. Some continued to observe the Sabbath, Passover and Yom Kippur and to observe the Jewish dietary rules. By the fourth century such groups had distanced themselves from the Christian mainstream.

Faith in Christ vs. Secret Knowledge

A second brand of unorthodox teachers incorporated Gnostic philosophical ideas into their understanding of the Gospel. Some denied that God was the creator of the material world and taught that matter was evil, rejecting marriage and anything they perceived as unspiritual. Many they taught that Jesus was a mere human who attained divinity through the secret lore (gnosis) which he knew and practiced. Acquiring such spiritual knowledge, reciting of mantras and the like, they taught, brings about the transformation of the human spirit and frees it from the body.

Several of the early strains of Gnosticism were described by St Irenaeus of Lyons in his second century work, Against Heresies. He quotes from their writings and refutes them from the authentic Scriptures. He notes their widely divergent and inconsistent doctrines in contrast to the unity of faith in the Church. He credits this unity to the Holy Tradition preserved in the Apostolic Churches. The common faith of these Churches puts “… within the power of all in every church who may wish to see the truth to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world” (Against Heresies 3.3.1).

Tradition: the Voice of the Spirit

Today the historic Churches – Catholic and Orthodox – look to a number of aspects of their life as manifesting the Apostolic Tradition. First among them are the Holy Scriptures (the Bible), the liturgy (the Church’s worship), the teachings of the ecumenical councils and other authoritative teachings of the Church. In the writings of the Church Fathers, the holy icons and the lives of the saints we also find authentic expressions of the Apostolic Tradition.

The fundamental expression of Tradition, however, is the Church itself which St Paul calls “the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:16). The Church is the context within which all the expressions of Tradition find their true meaning. It is impossible to fully experience any element of the Tradition outside of the content of the Church.

Like St Paul, the Church today counsels us to hold fast to what we have received and to test every novel teaching or practice against the common tradition of the Apostolic Churches. Although there is a diversity in these expressions of Tradition from time to time and place to place (there are, after all, four Gospels and a number of liturgical traditions), there is still a fundamental unity coming from their common source, the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church.